NB: This post is text-heavy. Once you get into the thick of it, you’ll understand why taking photos wasn’t exactly our top priority…
Ever since we landed in New Delhi, we’ve affectionately referred to Rishikesh as “the Holy Land;” the ultimate travel destination. I’ve even started to call the town – saturated with yoga, meditation, Ayurveda medicine, and crystal healing – my Holy Grail of India. While I’ve learned to understand and, in some ways, appreciate the chaos of big city living here, those few days in Jaisalmer had all of us itching for quiet countryside. Soaking up the birthplace of yoga? Yes, please! I’ll be honest: I’ve let my practice fall by the wayside in the months leading up to my departure, stockpiling excuses to rationalize missing entire weeks of classes at a time. I couldn’t dream up a better place to reinvigorate my love of something that does so much for me, body and mind.
The plan was simple, really: after a 4:45AM wake-up for a sunrise session at the Taj, our hotel arranged for a drop-off at the station, where we would train to New Delhi and a transfer vehicle would deliver us from the Nizamuddin Station over to Old Delhi Station for our second leg of the journey, eight hours up to the ‘Kesh.
We did not receive top marks for execution of said plan.
We were warned trains rarely run on schedule here (as with most things in the complex bureaucracy that is India), so we spent close to two hours stinking up Platform Two at Agra Fort Cannt Station, evading zipper pull salesmen and watching in horror as small children risked their lives to zigzag through the train tracks in search of food and empty bottles. When eventually our “special train” did appear, we hauled ass to jump aboard and collapse into our seats… only to find them already occupied, just as the train started to pull away from the station.
You guessed it: we got on the wrong train.
As luck would have it, this train was bound for the correct station, so a young couple and a family of three took pity on us, offering up one of their sleeper beds for Tom and an upper bunk where Jen and I hid behind the curtain with our bags. I know this joke is in bad taste, but we felt like two modern day Anne Franks, hiding in the attic from the big, bad Indian ticket inspectors. When, inevitably, they did approach Tom to verify our vouchers, we were the subjects of much scolding. “You not valid for this train!”
It turned out that the father of the family was, in fact, an engineer for Indian Railways (India’s Rick Crowe, I guess!), so he and the couple came to our rescue, persuading the ticket master to turn a blind eye. I could find a hundred things about this country to complain about – the garbage, the ulterior motives, the maltreatment of women – but it’s interpersonal exchanges like these that really define what India is all about. I read somewhere that in India, you trust with your heart and not your head. I’d buy stocks in that.
Fast-forward to Nizamuddin Station, where we were delighted to find none other than King Singh, all smiles and waving frantically at us from the entry gate! I have to say, it’s pretty surreal to see a familiar face in a country as densely populated as India. We had a quick catch-up as he touted us off to our transfer station. Little did we know it would not be the last time we saw him that day…
Again, another two+ hours were spent squatting on the burning concrete at the station, right smack in the thick of Delhi’s afternoon heat and smog. There was a brief rain shower sometime around 1:00PM, but I can tell you that hot, sticky rain doesn’t offer much reprieve from hot, sticky air.
As anyone who has travelled with me before can tell you, I’m not much of a treat when overrun with hunger, thirst, or exhaustion. Admitting is the first step to recovery, right? When you put all three of those together and toss “incorrectly-assure-the-foreigners-they-are-at-the-correct-platform” into the mix, this spells trouble. We missed our train. Missed it. A note to all future train travellers: don’t get a second opinion. Get a third… a fourth… and maybe a fifth for good measure. Oh, and don’t trust the Indian Railways automated telephone system; they’ll advise you of the wrong platform, too…
Just to make things a touch more infuriating, ticket stations are closed on weekends; our current tickets were non-refundable; and the only other train that evening was 100% booked. The Holy Land was looking more and more unattainable by the minute…
Ultimately, we decided to cut our losses and swallow the cost of hiring Singh to take us to Rishikesh by car. Desperate times, my friends. However, I am a believer in the clichéd “everything happens for a reason” POV, and although all of us held tight onto the Holy Shit Handles of our car as we flirted with death on the Indian highways, it made room for 8 hours of conversation and learning all about real life in India. The picture below is by no means professional, but it speaks to two things: the bumpy, down-trodden one-way roads (yeah, seriously!), and to the “brights or bust” motto every Indian driver apparently adopts at night. I guess when you’ve got a constant stream of cars flying directly at you, you want to be sure you see them before it’s too late…
All in all, a 416KM journey took us roughly 18 hours, our car pulling up to Hotel Welcome sometime after 1:30AM. If you do the math, that works out to a travel speed of about 23KM/hr. Woof.
Never, in all my days, have I been so grateful to fall into the sleep of the dead.
There’s a reason travellers agree that travel days are the worst days. At least it makes for a good story.